There are two very good reasons why you should not bank on birthdays. The first is that they come around only once every year, which makes for a rather long wait if you are the celebrating kind. The second is that people tend to forget other people’s birthdays. For some reason I had imagined issues attached to forgetfulness affected only those associated with me, so I was greatly pleased to arrive in Thomas Hardy’s birthplace one June morning and note with a perverse satisfaction that the world seemed to have forgotten his birthday. I walked into the visitor’s centre to double-check. “So good of you to notice,” the lady there said. “Visitors usually don’t. They realise it only when we tell them!”
She told me how to get to the cottage Hardy was born in and I took a meandering path through the woods. Hardy’s Cottage is in Higher Bockhampton, a village in Dorset in southwest England. Close-by is Dorchester, the town on which Hardy modelled Casterbridge. Dorchester still preserves some of the buildings mentioned in Hardy’s works: the King’s Arms (now closed), Henchard’s house (now a Barclay’s bank), the Corn Exchange (now the town hall), and the St Peter’s Church (thankfully still the St Peter’s Church). I walked up a slope under a canopy of oaks and birches, cutting across the heathland that inspired the Egdon Heath of three Hardy novels, and soon came upon the cottage. It stood downhill, on a carpet of green, complete with a thatched roof, smoke curling up from its middle chimney. It was perfect. Inside, I had a look around the bedroom where Hardy was born, and the one in which he wrote his first novels. None of the original furnishing survives, but the rooms were done up to recreate the feel of the period. I spent a pleasant half-hour there, for a spell sitting in ‘Hardy’s chair’ overlooking the garden. Then, energised with creativity, I headed out. The girl at the entrance was telling two middle-aged women it was Hardy’s 176th birthday. Leaving the women calling out excitedly to an approaching friend, I went in search of a public house to taste furmity and auction a wife or two.
I found out recently that Dorset has a dialect of its own. Sadly, it is dying. My adopted county takes its name from Dorchester, which was built by the Romans in AD 43 when they came for a little excursion across Britain. They called it Durnovaria. Under the Anglo-Saxons, the land around came to be known as Dorsetshire, and then simply Dorset. The county today is known for the Jurassic Coast (a breathtaking stretch by the English Channel that is too stunning not to behold), rolling green meadows, magnificent old ruins—and I suppose a dying dialect.
The Dorset dialect has its roots in one of the strands of Anglo-Saxon and is “a broad, bold, rustic shape of the English”. Those passionate about it say it is “rich in humour, strong in raillery, powerful in hyperbole”. In any case, it is full of words I am dying to use. Like joppety-joppety (nerves) and torrididdle (out of one’s mind) and ballywrag (to scold). If I was feeling a bit boris-noris (reckless), I would call you an undercreepen (sly) ramschacklum (good for nothing). The dialect probably influenced Tolkien, with its various names for pre- and post-meal meals (nuncheon, cruncheon, nummit and crummit, for instance), and that it is why J.K. Rowling called Dumbledore, well, Dumbledore. Rowling, I am told, pictured the Hogwarts headmaster as someone who went around humming to himself. Guess what ‘dumbledore’ means in the Dorset dialect? That’s correct: bumblebee.
I went to Tyneham because of its history. I wanted to see a village ‘frozen in time’. In 1943, ahead of the D-Day, the British army felt urgent need for some firing practice. So, in the Tyneham valley, they asked the villagers to leave. They haven’t been back since and the village (kind of) remains the way they left it. I walked around, taking in the school, the church with the red door on which the villagers had left a note asking the army to treat their property with care, and the ruins of a set of row houses with grass and buddleia growing on them. Wars normally ravage, but in the case of Tyneham I thought it had done just the opposite.
On my way back, I drove through Wool. Imagine naming your village Wool. But then, Dorset is full of places with curious names. I know of Shaggs and Sandy Balls. I have driven across River Piddle and visited Shitterton. I checked out Happy Bottom too. Last week I also took in the stunning view from Scratchy Bottom, which I am itching to revisit.
We hosted 12 Indian students at my university. I asked them what surprised them most about England. They said it was the fact that people found it surprising they spoke English.
Chindu Sreedharan is the author of Epic Retold, a Twitter retelling of the Mahabharata. He teaches journalism at Bournemouth. University, England.
E-mail your diarist: CSreedharan [AT] bournemouth [DOT] ac [DOT] uk